Is J.K. Dobbins RB1 in the Baltimore Ravens’ backfield for 2021?

As fantasy football managers dive into last season’s data to find an edge at running back, Baltimore Ravens RB J.K. Dobbins emerges as an intriguing breakout candidate for 2021. With Mark Ingram out of the backfield for the 2021 season, is Dobbins the RB1 for the Ravens? And should you consider him when on the clock in upcoming fantasy football drafts?

As a rookie, J.K. Dobbins’ production was stymied by the Ravens’ backfield timeshare

There is nothing more frustrating in fantasy football than having the most talented player stuck in a timeshare. Where most teams have some differentiation between their primary ball-handler and the RB2 on the depth chart, the Ravens utilized three rushers for the better part of the 2020 season. That does not even include Lamar Jackson on designed QB rushes.

If we break the season up into the pre-bye week and post-bye week, the backfield operated entirely differently for the Ravens. As a surprise to no one, Jackson was the team’s leading rusher with 50 carries for 346 yards and 2 touchdowns prior to the bye.

From Weeks 1 through 6, Ingram led the backfield with 50 carries while playing on 29.6% of the offensive snaps. During this time, he was the RB42 in PPR with 6.7 ppg and 0.72 points per opportunity. Gus Edwards was second in opportunities with 51 (48 rushes and 3 targets) while playing on 33.5% of the offensive snaps as the RB52 (4.6 ppg and 0.54 pts/opp). 

As a rookie, Dobbins (RB39) led the backfield in both fantasy points (7.6 ppg), snap percentage (36.6%), and efficiency at 1.17 pts/opp on just 39 total opportunities. 

Even though the Ravens continued to focus on the rushing game, splitting production four ways resulted in too few touches to sustain fantasy value. Once we look past the bye week, we see a massive change in the distribution of touches.

Dobbins established himself as the leader of the Ravens’ backfield after the bye week

From Week 8 on, Dobbins was a must-start for fantasy managers, as the Ravens made it a point to get the ball in his hands at the expense of Ingram. 

After toting the rock 50 times in the first six games, Ingram totaled just 25 more touches over the rest of the season as the RB104. Despite an injury and a short time on the reserve list, Ingram did receive several healthy scratches in the second half of the season. As a result, he played on just 8% of the snaps the rest of the way.

With the opportunities reshuffled amongst both Edwards and Dobbins, both shined for fantasy managers. Edwards was the RB20 following the bye week, playing on 34% of the offensive snaps. He averaged 9.6 carries per game and 10.0 PPR ppg and 0.94 pts/opp in that span.

Dobbins was the biggest beneficiary and became the player many expected him to be coming out of Ohio State. Following the bye, he led the Ravens’ backfield in snaps (48%) while averaging 12.8 touches, 77.4 total yards, and .77 touchdowns per game. This includes a missed game due to NFL protocols. 

Dobbins totaled 109 rushes for 651 yards and 7 touchdowns in that span. While not a massive amount, he did see a bump in fantasy points due to work in the passing game. Dobbins caught 7 of 10 targets for 46 yards. Averaging 13.6 ppg, Dobbins was the RB11 in fantasy with a hyper-efficient 6 yards per carry and 1.03 pts/opp. 

This efficiency speaks to his insane ability. However, it is also a concern to those selecting Dobbins in fantasy hoping to carry these numbers into 2021.

Is Dobbins primed to regress in 2021 for hopeful fantasy managers?

As I said, there is no denying the talent of Dobbins. If he had performed at the NFL Combine last year, he would have likely lit Indianapolis up. Everything we have seen on film and in the NFL suggests he will be a star in this league. However, Dobbins was almost too efficient in 2020. 

To average 6 yards per carry (No. 1 in 2020) for an entire season is virtually impossible. For those expecting more of the same from Dobbins in 2021, let’s look at this differently.

If you were to take his end-of-season averages and laid it out over a 16-game season, he would have 193.8 carries and 1,157 yards. Care to take a guess how many players in NFL history have seen 190 rushes or less with over 1,100 yards? Zero. In fact, only three players ever crossed the 1,000-yard threshold (1972 Mercury Morris, 1972 Franco Harris, and 2008 Derrick Ward).

If we push it out to 200 carries, only six running backs have ever averaged 6 yards per carry. Their average the next season fell to 4.7. Now, these are not scrubs either. We are talking about Adrian Peterson, Jim Brown, and Barry Sanders in this group. 

Dobbins’ touchdown rate and passing utilization is also a concern

While Dobbins did end the season with 9 touchdowns (second amongst rookie RBs), 7 of them came from Week 10 on (when he scored in every single game). That is not repeatable, however. The total might be similar at the end of 2021, but the every-game consistency will not be what we saw last season.

Another factor working against Dobbins is the Ravens’ passing scheme. Baltimore only targeted their tailback 62 times in both 2020 (15.8%) and 2019 (14.6%). This was 26th and 31st in the NFL, respectively. It didn’t help they threw the ball the least of all teams in 2020 (392).

If we look at the top 20 running backs of 2020, nearly all of them have one thing in common — passing usage. Amongst the top 20 fantasy RBs last season, they averaged 56.4 targets, 43.85 receptions, 324.6 yards, and 1.85 touchdowns for 87.41 fantasy points in PPR leagues. Of their 235.23 total points, 37.16% of this came via the passing game. The only players who made this list but saw less than 25 receptions were Nick Chubb and Derrick Henry. 

Dobbins saw 24 targets in total, with 16 of those coming in the first six weeks when he was not the primary rushing back. Therefore, if Dobbins is to assert himself into the RB1 conversation on passing usage similar to these totals, the margin for error is minute.

Dobbins will be the RB1 on the Ravens in 2021, even if not for fantasy

We saw the changing of the guard in Baltimore last season as John Harbaugh handed off the keys to Dobbins. Sure, Jackson will still see over 120 rushes. Nevertheless, there will be more than enough to go around for the RBs so long as it is just Dobbins and Edwards. No team has rushed more than the Ravens over the past four years. Given their success, as the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” 

If things hold consistent as expected, the Ravens should average around 31 rushing attempts per game. Dobbins should see between 14 to 15 (60%) of those carries. He is the primary option in the Ravens’ backfield for 2021 and beyond.

The player fantasy managers need to remember is Edwards. He may be the best value of the entire Ravens’ backfield. Since coming into the NFL, Edwards has never seen less than 130 rushing attempts or less than 700 rushing yards. As mentioned above, he was the RB20 from Week 8 on, and I don’t think anyone even noticed. Baltimore chose not to add any competition, and the only other RB on the roster is Justice Hill, who has 70 career rushes. 

Should anything happen to either RB, causing them to miss time, their value will skyrocket into the low-end RB1 to high-end RB2 range. Dobbins is currently going as the RB16 in PPR drafts (25.4 ADP). Edwards, on the other hand, is going nearly 80 picks later as the RB39 at 101.4 overall in ADP. 

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Tommy Garrett is a writer for Pro Football Network covering the NFL and fantasy football. You can read more of his work here and follow him at @TommygarrettPFN on Twitter.

Tommy Garrett is a Fantasy Analyst for Pro Football Network and is a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA). You can read all of Tommy’s work here, listen to him on PFN’s Fantasy Football podcast, and check out his contributions in PFN’s free fantasy newsletter. Give him a follow on Twitter: @TommyGarrettPFN.

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